The “Dirt” on What’s in Your Cart

Reviewed by Carl Winter, PhD, Director of the FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist at the University of California, Davis

"Eat your fruits and vegetables." You've likely heard this statement repeated since childhood, either from your parents, grandparents, or teachers. Even if you resisted at the time, by now you know that fruits and vegetables are good for you, so you make every effort to consume the amounts recommended by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans – right? However, over the past several years, a shadow has been cast over the safety of fruits and vegetables due to pesticide use in food production, raising questions around whether their nutritional value outweighs potential safety concerns. But should you be worried about pesticide residues on fruits and veggies? The following myths and facts provide the answers.

Myth: Organic farms don’t use pesticides.

Fact: Despite common perceptions, organic farming, just like other forms of agriculture, uses pesticides and fungicides. There are more than 20 “natural” chemicals commonly used in the growing and production of organic crops that are approved by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP).  By definition, organic foods must not use synthetic pesticides. That means pesticides that are derived from “natural” sources are permitted for use in organic agriculture. However, in the case of both organic and conventional fruits and vegetables, the levels of pesticide residues detected are very low – far below that which USDA and US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have deemed to be safe for human consumption – and not at a level to warrant health concerns. (Winter and Katz, 2011) While pesticide residues are detected less frequently on organic fruits and vegetables than on conventional fruits and vegetables, several studies have demonstrated that nearly one-quarter of all organic food samples contained detectable levels of pesticides.  The Environmental Working Group, which publishes an annual “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and vegetables with the highest relative levels of pesticide residues, has acknowledged that the nutritional benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables outweigh the potential risks from pesticide residues. In addition, simply washing fruits and vegetables removes most of the remaining residues.

Myth: Farmers often use more pesticides than needed and don’t care about the environment.

Fact: Farmers use pesticides only as necessary and within the strict rules established by the EPA. Farmers use pesticides not only to increase production efficiency and yields, but to reduce the cost of labor, fuel, and machinery, all of which are passed on to the consumer in the form of higher food prices. While farmers do use pesticides, when they use them, they are deliberate and now, more precise with the help of GPS technology, like that on our cell phones, which pinpoints the exact areas needing it and leaves other areas alone. Pesticides are expensive, so it would not be fiscally responsible for farmers to waste or overuse them. In addition, farming is a family business (87 percent of US farms are family-owned and operated - USDA Ag Census, 2012), and they do not want to do anything that would harm the land that will be their children’s livelihood one day. If pesticide use harmed the land, they wouldn’t use them.

Myth: The government doesn’t monitor pesticide residues on foods.

Fact: Pesticides are all thoroughly reviewed for safety and approved for use by the EPA, USDA, and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, FDA and USDA share responsibility for monitoring levels of pesticide residues on foods. In addition, a study by Winter and Katz (2011) found residues on all of the fruits and vegetables in the “Dirty Dozen” report to be well below levels found to be safe by EPA, USDA, and FDA.

According to Dr. Carl Winter, Director of the FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist at the University of California, Davis, “Consumers have nothing to fear or to feel guilty about if they choose to purchase conventional forms of produce on the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list. My and others’ research demonstrates that the existing regulatory approach for pesticides, including a safety review and establishment of appropriate pesticide application practices, adequately protects the public.” 

Visit: MyPlate Daily Food Plan to receive a customized Daily Food Plan with fruit and vegetable recommendations.

Additional Resources: 

Expert Perspective . . . Eat Your Fruits and Veggies and Don’t Fear the “Dirty” Rhetoric” by Carl Winter, PhD (Food Insight, July/August 2011)

IFIC Review: Pesticides and Food Safety 

Common Food Production Practices Fact Sheet

American Council on Science and Health  

“Safe Fruits and Veggies” from the Alliance for Food and Farming

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Resources on Pesticides

Pesticide Use Regulations on ORGANIC Fruit and Vegetable Farms